In July, Tbilisi’s old town is full of life. Buskers bring joy to passers-by; the long summer days mean locals meander the streets late into the evening; and families and friends gather for picnics in the city’s green spaces, or sit and chat on bench-lined pavements.
But look a little closer and it is impossible to ignore the havoc the pandemic has wrought on Georgia's tourism industry. From ice cream stands and hotels to some of the city’s best restaurants, countless businesses display “for sale” signs.
In Mtskheta, Georgia's ancient capital, half an hour from its current one, stall after stall is closed, and a smattering of people wander the cobbled streets. It's a far cry from the days when busloads arrived each hour.
'Tourism is critical'
My guide, Zviad Bechvaia from Travelist Georgia, resumed work in April and has since hosted about 15 to 20 private tours. In 2020, he had only three. “People here have been dying for tourists to come back,” he tells me. “Tourism is critical for the economy.”
Most tourists come from neighbouring countries with land access, but with so much to offer, it's an appealing destination that’s only a three-hour flight from the UAE. Flydubai launched direct flights to Tbilisi from Dubai 10 years ago and the route has become one of its most popular, with the airline now offering three flights a day.
Despite the pandemic, flydubai carried nearly 60,000 passengers between the destinations over 2020 and 2021. Air Arabia launched a direct route from Sharjah in 2014 and also from Abu Dhabi this June.
Good food, good company, good weather
There are still safety precautions in place in Tbilisi, with temperature checks and mandatory mask-wearing in indoor spaces, but outside, people are free. Cafes around the old city are abuzz with chatter, with a sense among both tourists and locals that the simple things in life are now what matter: good food, good company and good weather.
This is not the case across town. Staff at the once thriving David Aghmashenebeli Avenue stand outside trying to entice customers in, with cafes and restaurants crying out for business and artists around the Dry Bridge market barely able to sell a piece.
“We’ve been through tougher,” Bechvaia says. “It’s been a very hard year but the Georgian people have a strong spirit. We know this will pass eventually, we just don’t know when.”
Tbilisi consists of an intriguing mix of historical and cutting-edge modern architecture, from the glass-and-steel Bridge of Peace to the austere and dilapidated tower blocks that hark back to the Soviet era. From the Mongol to the Soviet, numerous empires have left their mark on the Georgian capital, which sits on the meandering Mtkvari River.
Organic by default
This 'Tuscany of the East', which shares the same latitude as Rome and Barcelona, is a gastronome’s paradise. Everything is fresh, local and natural, every salad bursting with flavour and each cheese a rival to anything found in Europe. Out of economic necessity, farmers still use old-fashioned agricultural techniques, meaning small-scale production by hand, so everything is organic in its truest sense.
Eating out is cheap and it’s rare to see anything other than Georgian restaurants, which adds a refreshing touch of authenticity. The city is untainted by the flood of fast food and coffee chains overtaking other parts of the world.
Its geographical location and history as part of the Silk Road explain the fabulous fusion of its cuisine, with influences such as Chinese-inspired dumplings in the form of khinkali, a remnant from the days of the Mongol Empire, along with many dishes that are familiar from Mediterranean, Levantine and Turkish cuisine.
In Meidan Bazaar, in the heart of the old town, Machakhela restaurant is as popular with locals as it is with tourists. Even when I visit at 10pm, it is bursting at the seams, with a feast for two costing little more than $13 to $16.
Value for money
Head out of town and value for money goes even further. On our way to the mountain region of Kazbegi, we stop with our guide at the family-run Georgian restaurant Tsanareti, which is full of locals, and where the three of us gorge on local treats for about $20.
Hiring a guide means finding such hidden gems is much easier and for $60-$100 per day per person, including driving, food and sights, it's a great investment. Petrol costs about three times more than in the UAE, and car hire costs $70-$100 per day, but roads are not easy to navigate and internet connection is patchy, so having someone to take care of that is a worthy luxury.
Tbilisi is safe and walkable. The dramatic ascent to the city’s highest point, where the Mother of Georgia, or Kartlis Deda, monument stands, provides a spectacular view of the city, which is nestled between some of the world’s most beautiful mountain landscapes.
Even when it’s relatively busy, there is a sense of peacefulness in Tbilisi, with birdsong and the rush of the river and the city’s little waterfalls often audible when walking its streets.
Hotels are a wonderful mix of grand and ultra-modern, which is reflective of the city’s wider renaissance. The elegant historical Tbilisi Marriott Hotel, built in the early 20th century on Rustaveli Boulevard with a Renaissance and Baroque-inspired design, is a great example of the city’s search for a balance between old and new.
This contrasts the must-visit, vintage-style Stamba and Rooms hotels, which were repurposed from a huge red-brick Soviet-era publishing house in the Vera neighbourhood and is a favourite hangout for the city’s trendy young urbanites.
A mountain escape
Rooms Kazbegi has arguably been one of the biggest winners of the pandemic. The former Soviet-era sanatorium has been converted into a spectacular mountain retreat two and a half hours from Tbilisi. With the vibe of an all-day party, it feels like a decadent student dorm for grown-ups, pumping out upbeat tunes from breakfast until late. If not for the face masks, it would be easy to forget there is a pandemic here.
The property boasts the best views across Kazbegi’s mountains and during the height of lockdown, was somewhat immune to the restrictions imposed on cities, becoming an escape route for wealthy Georgians.
Today, it remains the busiest property in the area, with its 157 rooms in demand on weekdays and weekends while many guest houses in the famous mountain region are struggling to survive.
Georgia is a picture book of magical settings, from mountaintop monasteries and fairy-tale forts to breathtaking nature at every turn. Its roads wind through valleys, mountains and verdant vineyards, serving up a dramatic display of colour. It feels special to be here during this rare time of quiet. There are no queues and no chaos at the major sights, and it couldn’t feel farther from the hustle and bustle of the sun-scorched UAE.
Travellers do not have to be vaccinated to enter Georgia but do need to show a negative PCR test on arrival. Unvaccinated travellers also need to do a test on day three of their stay in the country. It is easy to get tests at local clinics or at your hotel, but the prices will vary. A day-three test at the Tbilisi Marriott, for example, costs $35, and the test to return to Dubai when staying at the Sheraton costs $23. However, both services were convenient, quick and safe, arranged by the hotels with results back within 24 to 36 hours.
The flight from Dubai to Tbilisi with flydubai takes three hours. Economy flights cost about Dh2,000, but the airline also offers a business-class bidding option, which includes lounge access. There are also extra leg room seats available on the economy flight for an additional fee. Air Arabia flies to Tbilisi direct from Sharjah and Abu Dhabi.